Ahhh, Vincent Price…. now there’s a memory from my childhood. Of all the actors I remember from all those old movies, he stands out in my mind the most clearly. Always so smooth, sophisticated and so, so classy, whether playing the hero, or the villain, he always left such a vivid presence on my mind. This film, one of the many Poe adaptations by Roger Corman has to be undoubtedly his best, “The Masque of the Red Death”, from 1964.
Loosely inspired by Poe’s writings, our synopsis for it reads: “Death and Debauchery reign in the castle of Prince Prospero (played by Vincent Price), and when it reigns… it pours! Prospero has only once excuse for his diabolical deeds–the devil made him do it! But when a mysterious, uninvited guest crashes his pad during a masquerade ball, there’ll be hell to pay as the party atmosphere turns into a danse macabre!”
Mmmmm…. now this one’s a real gem and has a warm place in my many early film memories so how could it not be a “Lil’ Kitten Classic”? I’ve seen it many times since my first encounter as a child on afternoon TV, and it’s always one of those films I can find time to watch over and over. That alone tells this Catgirl it’s got to be something special to hold such power after all these years.
But, of course you all want to know more…. so let’s all “Read On”!!
Our story concerns Prince Prospero (played by Vincent Price) the titular ruler of a small Italian fiefdom who is well known for his cruelty and wickedness. Every year at harvest time, Prospero throws a grand feast for all his fellow noblemen, while his peasants are stripped of their hard earned food and are left to starve. Two of these peasants dare to speak up in protest, so the ruthless prince orders them to be garroted for their impudence. A young woman, Francesca (played by Jane Asher), the daughter of one of the two men and fiancée of the other, begs Prospero to spare them this cruel fate. Smitten by her beauty, Prospero takes Francesca, her father (played by Nigel Green) and her lover Gino (played by David Weston) away to his castle. But….. thanks to the discovery of an old woman dying horribly of the obvious signs of the dreaded Red Death, he also orders the village burned to the ground.
At the castle begins Prospero’s attempts to win over Francesca by corrupting her innocence through manipulation and trickery. Here the real “meat and potatoes” of the story gets rolling as we get introduced to Prospero’s current paramour Julianna (played by Hazel Court). She’s just about as evil and wicked as he is… and knows exactly how long she’ll last if pretty young Francesca hangs around. She’s been cozy with Prospero long enough to recognize competition and lets Francesca know she’d better not have any plans to try to usurp her position at the castle… or else. Everybody else is pretty much secondary to the plot…. with perhaps the exception of Alfredo, Prospero’s main sycophant (played by Patrick Magee) who has more to do with a sub plot involving another Poe story, “Hop Frog” added in here to flesh out the plot a bit involving the revenge of a dwarf jester named Hop-Toad (played by Skip Martin) upon Alfredo who stupidly abuses his beloved Esmerelda (played by child actress Verina Greenlaw & dubbed by an uncredited woman actress), a pretty midget ballerina for whom Alfredo has lustful designs for.
Prospero pretty much tells his guests to settle in for the longest party on record…. They’ll keep him amused and do his bidding or he’ll simply throw them out of the castle to the mercy of the plague that now ravages the countryside. Most of these idiots are so darn glad for the chance to curry favor that they’ll debase themselves in whatever manner he wants…. much to his amusement and poor innocent Francesca’s horror.
It doesn’t take long to throw in some Satanism (Movies just loved that notion in the 60’s and early 70’s)…. seems Prospero has been a worshiper of his for a while and Julianna has been long toying with the idea of becoming one of the “Handmaidens of Satan” herself… it just takes the threat of Francesca replacing her at Prospero’s side to convince her to undergo the terrible ritual needed to “seal the deal” with the Lord of Flies…. Here we get some pretty nasty self mutilation in the form of branding her breast with the reversed cross of Satan and a hallucinogenic dream sequence before Julianna finds herself damned forever. One seriously bloody bird attack later, and the honeymoon is over….. I guess Satan just isn’t into divorce.
Meanwhile Francesca’s dad and Gino are being held in the dungeon…. First they try to get the two to learn sword fighting so the two can try to kill each other in grand style for the party guests amusement…. when that fails, they come up with a goofy Russian roulette idea involving a poisoned dagger in a group of daggers. It doesn’t end well… and Francesca’s dad nearly kills Prospero before getting cut down. Gino is alive, but Prospero shows him his “mercy” by throwing him out of the castle… granting him his freedom, but dooming him to death by the plague….
Luckily the plague itself is more than just a mindless pestilence…. it’s a very real presence personified by a mysterious figure dressed in a scarlet monks robe. Not only that…. but it seems Prospero is on this supernatural spirit’s hit list and it’s willing to help Gino return to the castle and save Francesca in return for somehow aiding the Red Death in it’s attempts to enter the castle. Just in time for the grand ball….. First Hop Toad gets his revenge on Alfredo, trapping him in an ape costume and burning him alive before the other guests. Then Gino arrives…. and the Red Death with him. He’s told simply to wait at the battlements, as the Red Death itself stalks through the revelers spreading it’s deadly touch….. At first Prospero mistakes him for Satan, his Master, but soon discovers his mistake and is trapped at last in a hell of his own making here on earth…. just another victim of the plague with his face that sweeps through the castle slaying all the guests and making a tomb of the place.
At the end…. the Red Death meets it’s brothers at a crossroads…. and they discuss the death they have sown in their journeys. It’s revealed that only six now survive here, a young girl, Francesca and Gino, Hop Toad and Esmerelda and one lone old man in the burnt out village. A quick quote from Poe’s story, and it’s off to the end credits….. “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Mmmmmm… now this one was certainly a movie like they just don’t make anymore. Absolutely the best of Corman’s Poe adaptions, it benefited greatly from a budget and shooting schedule almost double his usual allotment for such a film. Also, being shot in England, he was able to use many preexisting sets, backdrops, and wardrobe from other productions at the studios where it was filmed that give it a lavish, expensive, and unique look which he well exploits. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg does an amazing job filming these sets and really makes the overall film look like it cost far more than it did. Add some class actors and this one shines as an excellent example of the genre. Vincent Price is at his best…. and although many reviews find him to be somewhat of a overrated ham, they fail to grasp the sheer talent he had for taking some of the most melodramatic dialog ever written in these films and investing his characters with an unearthly presence that transcends the sometimes silly material. At no time do you not feel this when he is center screen….. and he could do more with his facial expressions than many other actors could do with a page of dialog.
For it’s sheer sumptuous look, it’s style and it’s slow brooding menace, Neko gives “Masque of the Red Death” 4 “Meows” out of 5…. it’s not the most gut wrenching of horror films, but what it might lack in shocks or gruesomeness it more than makes up for with sheer classic looks and Gothic creepy mood. Little Miyuki loved it, as she did all these classic Poe films, and grown-up me still does….. If you’ve never seen this one, I guess I can only say “For goodness sake, why not?”
Naturally there’s just got to be a Trailer for such a classic film as this, and here it is….. Enjoy the terror!